Humans of HR: Meet Sarah Brennan, founder and principal at Accelir Insights
Humans of HR is a bi-monthly blog series featuring human resources thought leaders committed to making work more human.
Like other people we’ve interviewed, Sarah Brennan “never planned on going into HR at all.” Her first on-campus job was in career services and observing her fellow students’ struggles to find jobs made her begin thinking about a better approach to human resources. This was in the late 1990s, when technology at work was first coming into its own, and Sarah “doubled down on looking into how we could better use technology to facilitate not just hiring, but how we manage and work with people.”
She founded Accelir Insights, which works with organizations looking to improve how they recruit, retain, and engage their workforce, use technology in a thoughtful way, and tie everything back to business results. Sarah also consults with HR technology vendors on product design, sales team training, and what HR practitioners and organizations need in order to compete in the future of work.
Workhuman: What does working more human mean to you?
Sarah: We’re fortunate to be living at a time where personalization is not just a theory. Everything we do on our phones and online, and even what is presented to us to watch on Netflix, is now personalized.
That personalization allows us to be who we are as people. It’s important that organizations, as well as the technology companies buy for employees to use, understand that people are people – whether they’re at work or not. For the first time, we’re seeing companies grasp that and start to treat employees as individual humans and not simply as numbers.
Workhuman: Why do you think working more human is becoming a movement now?
Sarah: There’s a couple of different reasons and one of the biggest is the influence of consumer technology. We are exposed to so much media, whether we want to be or not. The messaging to be who we are – to be accepted for who we are – is coming at us from all sides.
You were once expected to go to work and be somebody different. There’s been pushback from society on having this double standard. And now the biggest driver of revenue, customer retention, and engagement any organization has is their own employees. It is nothing else. Once organizations started to recognize that, they realized that the human aspect is not just the nice or right thing to do, it’s also the most profitable thing to do.
Workhuman: When I was growing up there was this imperative to fit in. It’s different now. The drive to be an individual and to show your own personality and sense of self in all areas of life is much stronger now than even 20 years ago.
Sarah: Agree 100%. I think it’s also interesting that if you look at vendors in the HR technology space, tech is no longer about fitting into a mold. You’re seeing more individualized approaches, brand, processes, and technologies that aren’t one-size-fits-all. Maybe they only fit a small portion of the market, but they cater to that portion of the market really well.
Workhuman: Can you tell me a story about a challenge someone has faced, and how you helped them overcome it?
Sarah: An HR team at a successful organization was trying to bring in ideas and technologies around a more human employee experience. They were getting pushback and one executive was fearful about the change, even though their engagement scores had started to drop, and their hiring was getting harder. He worried an engagement program meant that nobody was going to have to come into the office anymore and when they did, it was going to be all about ping-pong games and free beer. He had misunderstood what engagement and culture really were about and how to harness them within the organization’s culture and industry (which would never include ping-pong and beer).
The broader team also was worried it had to change overnight. But it doesn’t have to go from zero to 60. It took four to six months of working with him and the leadership team to help them understand that these concepts are not “millennial” concepts, but human concepts.
What I often find is the biggest hesitation is change management and the fear of the unknown, especially for a company that has been successful for a long time. There is resistance to changing what worked previously, even if it is not currently working. It came down to education and building trust, and understanding the business value and speaking the same language as the executive, not as HR.
Workhuman: Have you seen the effects of diversity and age and gender differences?
Sarah: I’ve seen some issues when we look at socioeconomic, racial, and gender diversity, and at military history and disabilities. Even if you’re putting in effort to recruit, retention is a challenge if you haven’t put in place the environment and the culture to encourage and embrace diversity. Don’t think it ends at getting those candidates in – it’s also how you onboard, how you engage, how you give them a human experience so they don’t feel like they are a diversity hire. A lot of success can happen by taking small steps on an ongoing basis.
There is a study that shows that diverse companies produce 19% more revenue. A 19% increase in revenue is massive, and a lot of the work I do is through HR teams, working with executives to help bridge this gap between HR and business ROI.
Workhuman: What the greatest need in terms of making work a better place?
Sarah: We all come to work with challenges – what’s going on with our kids, our spouse or significant other, our parents. The more we connect with that and simplify what else is going on in employees’ lives, the better. Are you offering programs and initiatives to make it simpler and easier for them to be focused and engaged at work, or are you creating an environment that makes that balance more challenging?
Workhuman: What are some of your hopes and predictions for the future of HR?
Sarah: Employee engagement and the employee experience will be seen as valid. CEOs and executives are starting to understand the correlation between employee engagement and customer engagement, and how that ties back to profitability.
I think in the relatively near future, HR is going to be operating and running in a more insight- and numbers-driven approach. When done right, that does not take away from the human aspect at all. It’s going to become intuitive and more humanized and personalized. A lot of organizations are putting it in their roadmaps, and now it’s just about building and implementing the technology to help support it.
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